Photo courtesy Drone360 magazine, Drew Halverson
All UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds (8.8 ounces), including everything onboard or attached, are required to be registered and marked before flown outdoors (14 CFR section 48.15). In addition, the law (49 USC section 44103(d)) requires the operator to make the certificate of registration for the aircraft available for inspection when requested by a representative of the United States Government, or by any state or local law enforcement officer.
Law enforcement officers have a right to inspect the registration number and review the accompanying Certificate of Aircraft Registration, which the UAS pilot must carry in paper or electronic form. The unique FAA-issued registration number begins with either “N” or “FA,” and it must be readily visible on the aircraft. The N-number is generally used for aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds. Anyone with access to the internet can verify an N-number by using the N-number lookup on faa.gov. The FA-number is generally used for small UAS (sUAS).
If a law enforcement officer needs to verify a FA-number, they need to call their local FAA Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP) special agent. (To inquire about who your jurisdiction’s LEAP agent is, send an email to LEAP@faa.gov.) FA-numbers issued for model aircraft only are issued to the individual operator, and a single FA number covers all aircraft owned by that hobbyist. All other registration numbers are specific to the aircraft. As of March 2017, there were nearly 750,000 UAS registrations, and 92 percent of those are for hobbyist use.
To inquire about who your jurisdiction’s LEAP agent is, send an email to LEAP@faa.gov.
As stated before, the FAA starts with counseling and education but, if enforcement is required, the FAA may assess civil penalties of up to $27,500 for failure to register a UAS, including model aircraft. Criminal penalties include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.
Aircraft Use Check
“But officer, it’s just a toy.” It may be a toy, but it is also a civil aircraft. Under 49 USC section 40102(a)(6), an aircraft is “any contrivance invented, used, or designated to navigate or fly in the air.” The FAA defines an aircraft as “a device that is used or intended to be used for flight in the air” under 14 CFR section 1.1. Title 14 further defines that a model aircraft is an unmanned aircraft that is:
- Capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere;
- Flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and,
- Flown for hobby or recreational purposes.
Under Public Law 112-95 section 336 (amending 49 USC), Congress makes it clear that the FAA has the authority under existing regulations to pursue legal enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft when the flight endangers the safety of the NAS. The same law requires that the model aircraft:
- Be flown strictly for hobby or recreational use;
- Be operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization;
- Limited to not more than 55 pounds unless otherwise certified through a design, construction, inspection, flight test, and operational safety program administered by a community-based organization; and,
- Be operated in a manner that does not interfere with, and gives way to, any manned aircraft.
When a model aircraft is flown within five miles of an airport, the law also requires the operator to provide the airport operator and the air traffic control tower (if present) with prior notice of the operation.
Photo courtesy Drone360 magazine, Drew Halverson
Model aircraft operators do not require a “license” (pilot certificate) to operate as long as they are flying within safety guidelines and using a model aircraft as previously described.
If flying for more than recreation (i.e., flying for compensation or hire), the UAS operator must be a certificated remote pilot and operate according to 14 CFR part 107. The minimum age for a remote pilot certificate is 16. A certificated UAS operator must carry the certificate, which is a plastic card with a unique certificate number and personally identifiable information. Upon request by law enforcement, a UAS pilot may voluntarily present their certificate to show that they are allowed to fly under part 107 sUAS rules; however, they must show their certificate to a representative of the FAA according to 14 CFR part 107.7.
As of March 2017, there are approximately 52,000 people certificated by the FAA to fly UAS commercially in the U.S.
FAA Remote Pilot Certificate
Model aircraft flying is permitted as long as the operator follows hobbyist aircraft rules and a community-based set of flight safety guidelines. However, if they are flying within five miles of an airport, they must notify the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower if available. Notification doesn’t mean asking for permission, but if a model aircraft is operated when advised not to, and it endangers the safety of the NAS, the operator is subject to enforcement action. If you are unsure whether the operation is within the five mile restriction of an airport — including heliports and seaplane bases — you can use the FAA’s B4UFLY smartphone app to check (see our Angle of Attack department for more). Also note that some hobbyist groups may have established a mutually-agreed upon operating procedure with the airport operator and air traffic control tower when flying from a permanent location within five miles of that airport.
While the 5-mile limitation is not imposed on part 107 operators, they are restricted to flying in Class G airspace. However, the FAA can issue an authorization to allow flying in Class B, C, D, and E airspace. The operator must apply through an online process at faa.gov that involves proving the purpose of operation and method by which the proposed operation can be safely conducted. As of March 2017, more than 2,000 airspace authorizations have been granted. If the remote pilot holds such a authorization, he or she must carry it during UAS operations. Referencing a VFR aeronautical chart (aeronav.faa.gov) to determine the classification of your local airspace is also useful.
If a UAS is flying in airspace where it is not authorized or poses an imminent safety issue, it should be reported to one of the FAA’s 24/7 Region Operations Centers (ROC). (See the “LE Reference Card” link at the end of this article for contact information.) If a drone is seen from the cockpit, report it to ATC.